Saturday, November 08, 2008

Coming Down 
From The Ceiling

I can finally set my feet on the ground long enough to make a blog post.  I have slapped myself, pinched myself, and woken up several times since Tuesday, carefully checking the newspaper each day to make sure that I didn't dream it, and that it is real.

Here is a photo of my husband, Dave, in the voting booth, helping to make history happen:

How often do you get to see that?  History in action, one citizen at a time.

Forty-five years before he cast that vote, Dave and I, unbeknownst to either of us, had stood only a block or so apart from each other for another historic event.

When I was a wee small child,  my hometown of New Orleans had the tremendous honor of receiving a visit from President John F. Kennedy.  There was a motorcade to escort the President's car through the city, and vast crowds of people -- people of all colors -- lined the streets to catch a glimpse of JFK.

Today, my mother recalls that the air was charged with excitement that spring day, just sparkling with hope and happiness; that joy was as tangible as the scent of sweet olive and jasmine on the breeze, and she says that you could actually feel the energy and sense of expectation flowing from one person to another as everyone waited for the President to pass by.

I was old enough to dress myself and go to the bathroom unattended, but still too little to be in kindergarten.  I was too young to truly understand who the President was, but I understood that he was very, very important.  More important than a movie star, the mayor, or even Elvis Presley. I had the vague notion that he was the Boss of America, and I knew that we lived in New Orleans, and that New Orleans was just a very tiny part of  a huge place called America,  so if someone was the Boss of America, then he was very important indeed.

My mother recalls explaining, in the simple way you explain things to a small child, that President Kennedy was very important because he would be the person who would finally make black people and white people equal, so that black kids and white kids could go to school together, and so that black people could vote and ride the bus and get good jobs just like everyone else.   My mother told me that President Kennedy would be remembered forever and ever, by everyone around the whole world, because he would see to it that this great thing would be done.

My mother lifted me into her arms so I could see everything, and we waited.  I had a blue balloon, and I watched it bob up and down as I tugged on the string.  
And suddenly, the motorcade was upon us, led by a police escort with flashing lights and wailing sirens.  My mother, of course, remembers every detail, but all I remember is a whole bunch of convertibles going by, and various people in fancy attire waving at the crowd, and then a great cheer swept along the street as the President's car approached.

"Wave!  Wave at the President!" my Dad called out, and I did.  I waved the way small children do, furiously pumping both of my arms at the handsome man passing by in the big, fancy, black car.   I probably also yelled "Yay!" at the top of my lungs, which was my default volume setting at that age.  

And then he was gone.  

Forty-five years later, in possession of a full understanding of what it means for someone to be President of the United States, and comprehending the critical importance of the civil rights movement, it thrills me to think that I actually, for a moment, breathed the same air as JFK. And I am grateful that I remember that moment. Even though I viewed that event through the eyes of a small child, I can still say that I was there.  I saw JFK, live and in person.  I waved and yelled.  I had a balloon, lifted into the air both by helium and elation.

I probably remember that moment because I caught the buzz of the crowd, because I picked up on the excitement and joy in the hearts of the people who surrounded us: young and old, black and white, people from all walks of life.   I was so little that I don't remember what I got for my birthday or for Christmas that year, but the energy generated by all those people and by my parents and grandmother was sufficient to record a video clip of that event in my brain, where it remains to this day, bright and clear.

In my life, I have missed exceedingly few opportunities to vote, although I can think of a few School Board elections and tax referendums I didn't bother with.  I have always voted for President, the Senate and Congress.  I was entering high school when the United States exited Vietnam, and I remember watching Richard Nixon resign from office.  I worked for democratic Congresswoman Lindy Boggs after school when I was a teenager, I planted yard signs for Jimmy Carter in 1976, and the very instant I turned eighteen, I rode the bus to City Hall and registered to vote.

I have done a lot of voting in my life, and I have campaigned for more than a few candidates. Sometimes I actively campaigned for someone I liked well enough to believe that he or she might make some sort of a difference in the world, but there were also many times I went to the polls and held my nose to pick the least stinky offering in the dogpile.  Most often, I have voted for "anybody else" just because I despised the incumbent so much that I would have voted for a cardboard box, or Gumby, or a Cotswold sheep.  Only once before -- when I voted for Bill Clinton -- has the President of my choice been elected.

Not this time.

This time, my husband and I campaigned for someone we deeply believed in.  We went to the local campaign headquarters and made phone calls with a real sense that we were doing something for the common good, and not just to see the incompetent incumbent get ousted.

We put signs in our front yard for Obama, and for Mary Landrieu, the Democratic candidate for Senate, but as happened to so many other Obama supporters in our area, some hateful, childish excuse of a hominid stole the signs from our yard in a fit of impotent rage.

So we made replacement signs:

A week later, someone stole these signs, too (probably the same nutcase), but by then it was to late -- Obama had been elected.

Some of you who are not Americans may not understand the heated and adversarial nature of our political arena, and the fact that we call it an "arena" is telling.   Most Americans treat an election as "us versus them," or "our side versus their side" -- not unlike a college football game. 

Very much like college football games, grudges are held, insults are hurled and team colors are waved in the air.  The normal course of things in America is to treat your political challenger like an enemy, rather than as an opponent.  I have often been guilty of this myself, because for the last twenty-four years of my life, I have been put on the defensive simply for being who I am, with my party constantly being lambasted by the sort of people who use the word that describes my political leanings -- "liberal" -- as a venomous curse instead of a simple adjective to describe those persons who support personal liberty, unconditional equality for all people, individual privacy, quality public education, religious freedom, social responsibility, a clean environment and military reticence.

As though those are bad things.  

Le sigh.

This time, I got to vote for someone who truly espoused the things I believe in myself.  But the sense of purpose and meaning was far greater than that.  This time, it wasn't simply someone I agreed with. It was someone who, with an agenda of inspiration and hope, had the opportunity to punch through the closely guarded circle of power and make profound changes in this world, and that was an infectious idea indeed.

This time,  I woke up on election day barely able to contain myself.  I simply couldn't wait to go and vote.  I was prepared for long lines, and I brought my knitting along to while away the time.

And when it was my turn, I held my breath and looked at the ballot like I was witnessing a miracle.  There was Barack Obama's name on the ticket, an African-American man holding the very real possibility of becoming President of the United States.  

My mind filled with a fleeting parade of images:  I remembered the "whites only" signs on public bathrooms and at the laundromat.  I remembered the "colored entrance" signs at various businesses, and black maids in white uniforms riding on the back of the bus.  I recalled the ghosts of the "white" and "colored" lettering above the water fountains at Woolworth's -- after the Civil Rights Act was passed, the words were scraped off the tile wall, but a faint trace of the lettering remained there for many years afterward.

And I remembered my mother standing up and offering her seat, at the front of a very crowded bus, to an ancient black woman who struggled up the bus steps with her cane.  I remembered the ugly words white people yelled at that woman, and at my mother.  I remembered my mother clutching my hand and telling me not to look at them, that they were just hateful and ignorant, and I remember my mother helping that elderly lady get off the bus when we arrived downtown.

When I pushed the button to cast my vote, for the very first time in my life, I was filled with awe and wonder, filled with the sharp awareness that I was actually participating in history -- not only the history of my country, but the history of the world.  It was the strangest feeling -- gravity mixed with a surge of joy, sobriety mingled with enchantment.

Maybe it was just the tears running down my face, but when I pushed that button, I swear that I saw sparks, as though I, and millions of others, had waved a magic wand.

I think we did.   We made history.

I can say that I was here for it, and that I remember it, that we participated in it, and that we watched while the rest of the world erupted in joy.

And I know that the janitorial smell of the grade-school gymnasium where we vote, the feeling of the autumn sunshine on my face, and the magnificent feeling of pushing that button will remain with me for the rest of my days.

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At 12:34 PM, Blogger Dreamin Diva said...

As a Canadian I read of the joy and hope with which so many have welcomed the election of Obama, with a certain amount of envy as we didn't fare so well or positively in our recent election. I am also reminded of the hopefulness of the Kennedy era. I have one nagging thought and wish: keep him safe.

At 11:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well said!

If I'd known one could vote for a Cotswold sheep, I would have several governors ago!

At 2:16 PM, Blogger Divine Bird said...

My husband and I felt the same elation when we voted on Tuesday, and there was a special spring in our steps as we left our Town Hall. Scores of people were lining up (we got there and had no wait, but apparently afterward the lines stretched out the door) and everyone looked energized, happy, and hopeful.

I am so looking forward to seeing what President-Elect Obama will do for us and how we as a country will succeed. I was born many years after JFK and Martin Luther King, Jr., but I count myself lucky to have voted for someone who only had the chance he had because of the work they started.

At 9:22 AM, Anonymous elizabeth said...

At the risk of sounding like Lawrence Welk: Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.

At 1:34 PM, Blogger Suna said...

As a small child of about your age in the south, I have many of the same memories. I remember being home from kindergarten as my mother cried and cried during Kennedy's funeral. I just thought the white horsies were pretty. I remember those water fountains with the faded signs, the fact that my grandmother had a bathroom in the garage for the "help" and that I got spanked for using it once. Thank goodness I also remember some of the good things, and right when I thought I'd never get a chance to vote for someone I could feel good about, this came along. I am proud of how many people in the South DID vote for Obama, especially in my home state of Florida and my dad's adopted state of North Carolina.

If we can just get our gay friends equal some day, I may end up feeling positive thoughts about's an uphill battle, but I am glad there are people still willing to get out and fight.

At 6:34 AM, Blogger Mary Lou said...

Well written post Dez. I'm still crying at the oddest moments.

At 9:45 AM, Blogger Knitterman said...

Yyyaaayyyyy!!! (just now catching up on blogs). Feels good to do something that you know is SO right, SO progressive, SO positive, huh? :-)

At 7:03 PM, Blogger Barbara H. said...

We are very happy in our household, too, about the outcome of the election. I'm thinking positive thoughts about this new maybe we will actually move forward and make progress as a nation, instead of the horror show of the last eight years, which took us backward. Onward and upward to brighter days! Yaaaay!!! ;) (Loved your story.)

At 7:39 PM, Anonymous Susan said...

Having lived many years in Mississippi (Indianola and Jackson), I completely, wholeheartedly understand and feel your excitement.

I remember, too, the "whites only" water fountains and restrooms. I never rode in a public bus in Mississippi, but I do recall hearing about how blacks were herded to the back. In high school, my class was the last "whites only" class.

I shared Dr. King's proclamation "free at last," though I knew it wasn't quite true. However, a new day has dawned - and, it's a glorious one at that! I thank God Almighty - we just might all be free at last!

Thanks, Dez, for your uplifting comments. Wow! What a wonderful country we're privileged to live in!


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